The mom-of-two opens up to Scary Mommy about her new novel, City of Likes, which dissects the outrageous — and dark — world of mom influencers.
It took Jenny Mollen, a New York Times best-selling author, years to find a publisher to champion her debut novel — a satirical book about motherhood and the all-consuming, twisted world of social media.
“I don't know that we were ready to look at our addiction when I first went to sell it in 2019,” Mollen, 43, tells Scary Mommy over Zoom about shopping around her latest work, City of Likes, over recent years. “Everyone, these publishers, had to live through a pandemic and really come face to face with our addiction to our phones and this desperate need for external validation for anybody to say, ‘Oh, maybe you do have something,” Mollen adds, erupting into slightly ominous laughter.
Mollen, whose received praise for her non-fiction book of essays I Like You Just the Way I Am: Stories About Me and Some Other People and memoir Live Fast Die Hot, was disappointed no one was initially willing to give her fictional social media saga a shot. But thanks to the emotional support of her husband, American Pie actor Jason Biggs — who Mollen says “combed through this fucking book backwards and forwards” and “intensely stepped up for me” — she made it through “the wild west” and found a publisher in The Nacelle Company.
City of Likes follows unemployed copywriter, Megan Chernoff, who’s struggling to find herself again after the birth of her second child. Seeking a fresh start, Meg and her family move to New York City, where she meets Daphne Cole — a beautiful, well-known “momfluencer.” Meg soon gets caught up in the world of wellness routines and power mama supper clubs as she embraces the intoxicating, inauthentic habit of social media curation. But as everything around her starts to unravel — namely her relationship with her husband and their sons — Meg comes to see the true facade of online success.
“It's all me. Truly, all me. All of it,” Mollen says of the book. “There's the feelings of inadequacy, the imposter syndrome, the wanting to please. And it's just all my mommy issues. This book really is all of my mommy issues.”
Mollen — who shares two sons, Sid, 8, and Lazlo, 4, with Biggs — admits to falling down the rabbit hole of Instagram, finding herself gripped by the incessant scroll, for years.
“I kept saying, ‘This is my truth and if I don't write this book, I'm going to become this book,’” she explains. “I know that there are women out there who need to hear this message, because this is a story that I needed someone to tell me.”
Mollen was aware of her attachment to social media, but was good about keeping it under wraps in front of her family. Then, the coronavirus lockdown happened and she was, like every other person, in quarantine with nowhere to shield herself.
“It was literally a cigarette I was hiding from my kids before the pandemic,” Mollen says. “And then, in the pandemic, it was like, ‘Oh, guys, by the way, I'm snorting lines of cocaine off the kitchen table. This is who I really am.’ I mean, that's how, like, crazy it got.”
The desire to address her non-stop need for internet validation led Mollen to start writing City of Likes, which is already being developed into a TV series with help from executive producer, Juno scribe Diablo Cody. (“I freaked out,” Mollen says of the partnership.) While working out the social media side of things, Mollen also began exploring her experience with toxic relationships and the effect they’ve had on her life.
“I am a true co-dependent and I will get hooked on, you know, usually an older woman, a narcissist, and want to, like, serve her and please her and make her love me,” Mollen says. “The emotional relationship between Megan and Daphne is based on my own heartbreak and my own unhealthy, toxic female friendships that I've found myself in. It was me trying to process and, I don't know, get some closure on them.”
In the book, Meg falls for the allure of Daphne who, in the end, puts her children at risk when the ladies are chasing “followers” and “likes” on a trip to Paris. Things only get worse from there.
“More is just more. It’s not better. It doesn’t fill the hole. It is the hole,” Mollen writes, as Meg.
As much as Mollen dislikes the trappings of social media, she knows it’s still a hand that feeds her.
“The book is a condemnation of Instagram and yet I'm like sitting there going, ‘Eva Chen, will you do a book club with to promote my book?’ It's just really a crazy dichotomy,” Mollen admits. “Weirdly enough, if I didn't have the influencing and Instagram and I wasn't getting my cup filled in that way, I don't know if I could have sustained for four years [without a publisher] just telling people, ‘I'm working on a book,’” she adds. “I don't think I have the ego strength for that.”
Mollen wants anyone who reads City of Likes to hopefully recognize those pitfalls and the “pic or it didn’t happen” culture we’ve found ourselves in. How can we, possibly — if ever — crawl our way out of this lifestyle?
“The takeaway is choose the life in front of you and not the one staring up at you from your phone,” she insists. “Look up, and look at your kids. Don't be so focused on getting that picture perfect, because the picture means nothing. The picture, by the way, isn't even going to be printed! It's going to sit on your phone somewhere... forever. You're going to miss some of the best years of your life if you're so busy trying to curate it for other people.”